How do inter-faith marriages under the Special Marriage Act work?
How do inter-faith marriages under the Special Marriage Act work?(Photo: Erum Gour/The Quint)
  • 1. The Special Marriage Act 1954: Origins and Compromises
  • 2. What are the Conditions for Getting Married Under the...
  • 3. Process for Registering a Marriage Under the Special...
  • 4. The 30-Day Objection Period and its Misuse
  • 5. Court Rulings That can Help Couples Being Harassed
Confused About Special Marriage Act? Inter-faith Couples Take Heed

Sahil Khan, a Muslim man, was recently thrashed by a mob when he arrived at the Ghaziabad court to get married to a Preeti Singh, a Hindu woman. The couple had chosen the Ghaziabad court since they were told it was a safe and easy process there –the mob, getting to know that an inter-faith marriage was about to take place, decided to prove otherwise. This followed another incident in Vadodara where the relatives of a Muslim girl ransacked the family home of a Hindu man whom she had eloped with.

On 20 July, the Punjab & Haryana High Court had to inform the Haryana government that its Court Marriage Check List (to be followed for registering a marriage under the Special Marriage Act) violated the fundamental right to privacy, and exceeded the authority given to state governments to frame rules under the Act.

What connects these incidents? The legal formalities to be followed for registering inter-faith marriages, and the ways in which these have been twisted to create complications that put couples at risk.

Here’s what the law on such marriages actually entails, and what to watch out for when trying to register them.

  • 1. The Special Marriage Act 1954: Origins and Compromises

    The Special Marriage Act (SMA) was enacted in 1954 as part of a series of reforms to personal laws in India that Jawaharlal Nehru had made a priority. The SMA was meant to be a legislation to govern marriages that could not be solemnised according to religious customs – which essentially meant inter-faith or inter-caste marriages.

    It can also be used by couples from the same community who don’t want their marriage (and ancillary issues like divorce) governed by relevant personal laws – a marriage performed in accordance with religious rites can also be registered under the SMA afterward.

    A similar law had existed since 1872, but it included some extremely problematic elements, including renunciation of religion by anyone getting married under it, and no provision for dissolution or nullification of marriage. Renunciation as a precondition was removed for marriages among Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains in 1922, but this wasn’t enough, necessitating the 1954 SMA.

    Now, anybody can get married under the SMA without giving up their religion, and there are proper provisions for divorce (including by mutual consent), custody of children, and alimony.

    The SMA was supposed to be a way of circumventing cultural taboos against marrying outside one’s religion or caste. But while it does provide for this, it came into being at a time when Nehru was embroiled in a bitter struggle with Hindu conservatives both within the Congress and outside it, who were not pleased with his proposals for reforming the Hindu personal law, and were also not happy with the idea of unrestricted inter-religious marriages.

    As a result, the SMA came to include a number of provisions meant to serve as a compromise between Nehru and the conservatives, two of which stand out:

    1. The requirement of a notice period before a marriage can be conducted – which makes the process more cumbersome;
    2. If a Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jain marries outside of these communities, they are no longer considered part of the “undivided family” – which means they cannot inherit ancestral property if they marry a Muslim, Christian, etc.
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